At Taste of Tufts: Sam Sommers presents research on racial diversity


 The Taste of Tufts series, sponsored by the Experimental College, returned last Friday with the first of 10 weekly lectures presenting a diverse sample of faculty research. Associate Professor of Psychology Sam Sommers presented his findings in the field of social psychology in a lecture entitled “Examining Racial Diversity: A Behavioral Science Approach.”

“Diversity is a topic that receives a great deal of attention in a variety of different quarters in society today,” Sommers said. “Whether it’s the general public, whether it’s political candidates, corporate America, the media, what have you, there’s a lot of discussion and debate about diversity: what diversity means, what the best way to achieve diversity is, whether we should be trying to achieve diversity.”

Sommers emphasized the need to further explore how we approach the idea of diversity in everyday reality and application. 

“Even though we’ve reached a stage in our society where everyone gives lip service to diversity being important, whether it’s a political candidate or a corporate executive or a university administrator, you don’t hear a lot of disagreement that diversity might be a good thing, but there is a lot of potential disagreement and controversy regarding how to do it and to what extent,” he said. “It’s a particularly controversial and polarizing topic … [and] many of our assumptions about how diversity works are either misplaced or oversimplified.” 

Sommers listed numerous potential avenues through which to explore the topic of diversity, including historical, legal, constitutional and ethical approaches. Sommers’ research – and thus the crux of his lecture – was rooted in the question of the observable effects of diversity, specifically on a racial level. Sommers said that his research fills an existing gap in the study of diversity.

  “There’s a piece of this discussion about diversity that does not always get enough attention, and it’s the piece about…the observable effects of diversity – under what circumstances does diversity have positive effects versus more of a mixed bag of effects?” he said. “Like much of human nature, there’s really no simple answer to the question of ‘does diversity work’ or ‘how does diversity work?’ It’s very context-dependent … It depends on the situation that you’re in, and it depends on a lot of contextual factors.”

Sommers described various studies he has executed in recent years, often using Tufts students as participants, which provide context for various forms of racial interaction.

First, Sommers described a study that he conducted along with two Tufts undergraduates in which he examined the extent to which being among a diverse group impacts cognition. The white participants in this research were randomly assigned to either an all-white group or a racially diverse group of five to seven fellow Tufts students. The participants were then informed that they would be engaging in a conversation among their respective groups and that they must read background information on the topic at hand (which was either race-neutral or race-relevant) prior to the discussion. Sommers and his team then administered a surprise reading comprehension test to the participants. Sommers’s hypothesis was proven: The white participants in racially diverse groups who expected to discuss a race-relevant topic had higher scores. Expecting to be part of a diverse group leads to more careful information processing, Sommers said.

Sommers also described a study in which he assessed the potential positive effects of interracial interaction. A racially diverse group of participants (all Tufts students) was asked to play what was essentially an adult version of the children’s game “Guess Who?” Both members of a duo were given a set of pictures of faces, instructed to each select a face and to ask yes-or-no questions regarding appearance in order to guess which face their respective partner had selected. The findings of the study were, “A strong effort on the part of our white [participants]…to come off as being colorblind, to do everything they can to avoid asking about race,” according to Sommers. Specifically, a white participant was significantly less likely to ask about whether the face was black or white if their partner was black than if thier partner was white.

“There’s a mentality we’re being raised in in our society today that says, ‘If I don’t notice race, then I can’t be biased, then I can’t do anything wrong,'” Sommers said.

These students were also viewed (via silent videos) by additional participants, who judged the white individuals in white-black pairs as being colder, more distracted and less friendly than their counterparts in all-white pairs.

Finally, Sommers discussed a study he conducted with Tufts graduate student Sarah Gaither in which Tufts freshman roommate pairs were examined at three intervals. First, the participants answered an online survey before arriving on campus regarding their past experiences and the expectations they had for their potential roommates. Next, these students responded to an additional online questionnaire in December featuring similar questions. In the third phase, the participants were part of a lab study in the spring in which they were observed interacting in that controlled setting with individuals they had never met before. 

The results were complex, Sommers said, but a few simple conclusions were apparent. In the second phase, white students with other-race roommates tended to have higher percentages of non-white friends and more positive attitudes toward racial minorities in general than their white counterparts with white roommates. From the third phase, Sommers said that the white participants with non-white roommates had less anxiety (both observed and self-reported) during their interactions with strangers than the white participants with white roommates. Therefore, these positive diversity effects, according to Sommers, can be observed in the real world as well as in controlled lab settings.

In the question-and-answer session following his lecture, Sommers was asked why he does research regarding racial diversity.

“I often get asked … how I got started doing research in this area, and sometimes it’s out of genuine curiosity and sometimes it’s, ‘Why’s a white guy like you studying these things?’ I don’t have a great personal answer to that,” he said. “I grew up in a very white, upper-middle-class Midwestern suburb.”

The question of why he works in the field of social psychology in general, however, is more conclusive.

“As a social psychologist, there are two things about this field that have always drawn me to it: One is the opportunity to study issues that matter … in everyday life, the situations we encounter on a regular basis. There’s a way to study those controversial issues that’s incredibly valuable,” he said. “And second, to demonstrate that … we so often do not have a good handle on why we do what we do and we think what we think. And there’s few better demonstrations of that in this country than [race and ethnicity] . . . there’s no bigger elephant in the room in our society.”